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Compulsory national anthems, no thanks

  • Published at 06:26 pm March 11th, 2014
Compulsory national anthems, no thanks

Sometimes there may be less to a story than meets the eye.

When the education minister recently said the government will act against madrasas which do not perform the national anthem and hoist the national flag, relatively few people expressed disagreement.

As all public schools perform the national anthem at assemblies and it is a longstanding feature of cinema screenings, it seems natural to want to include pupils who attend madrasas. 

With Bangladeshis a short while ago setting the world record for the largest flag and an inspiring attempt forthcoming for the largest number of people to sing a national anthem, there are plenty of reasons to believe the ministers statement is not overly controversial.  

For a start, the government has an active say in the matter as it regulates Aliya madrasas and gives funding to over 1,500 religious based schools around the country. On a broader note, particularly in relation to the many non-state regulated Qawmi madrasas, governments over the centuries have sought to standardise and regulate the education delivered by the madrasa sector.

Moreover, few madrasas themselves have been heard to complain. Why would they? Add up their students and parents and they represent millions of citizens, who are as likely to be as patriotic and happy to drape themselves in the national flag as any similarly large number of Bangladeshis.

But allow me to differ. This story matters more than it appears.

It is not as if I haven’t stood up for Amar Sonar Bangla lately. I cheered for it at the end of a lively concert barely two weeks ago. Having been brought up in England, where many affect embarrassment with displays of patriotism because of associations with empire, it is refreshing to be in a land where the lyrics of the national anthem are rooted in love of place rather than outdated expressions of militarism and conquest. And where the flag, unequivocally, represents liberation from colonialism.

No, my reluctance is in principle down to being against the idea of making it compulsory.

It is also influenced by some of the factors underlying the government’s interest in regulating madrasas. These reasons are often worthwhile. Many if not most madrasas serve students poorly by delivering narrow curricula and obscurantist attitudes. Qawmi institutions in particular largely exclude girls and their emphasis on rote memorisation is a poor preparation for life and the workplace.

I do not doubt also, that the government has sound reason to allege that some madrasas teach students to stand against the spirit of the liberation war or be hostile to the governing party. 

But this is not seeing the woods for the trees. What the government should be more concerned about is asking why millions of parents actually send their children to madrasas. Clearly for some there will always be a spiritual calling, but for a majority it is simply because they have no choice.

For all the strides made by successive governments towards achieving universal access to primary education, many children are left out by the school system. This is a failure of society. The large number of school students in madrasas is not due to their education quality or funding, but because the state is neglecting to ensure equal access for all. Throw in that some madrasas provide welfare and food for the poor and orphaned, which is not delivered by the state, and the numbers become easier to explain. 

Even in big cities where schools are plentiful, children are left out. It is only via the efforts of NGOs and volunteers for instance that many street children in the middle of Dhaka receive any lessons at all. There are also still reports of some state schools making illegal charges which deter poorer children.

Seeking to reform madrasas may well bring societal benefits, but it would be far better for the government to concentrate on improving its delivery of universal education, so that fewer children are dependent on madrasas, for any semblance of education in the first place.

It is not as if there is any possibility of closing down madrasas. The freedoms of thought, conscience, and speech are too important to most people and protected by the constitution to contemplate such a misguided policy. In any case, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions. 

This is why matters are made worse when sometimes the language used to talk about madrasas smacks of class snobbery, or stirs up moral panics about militant Islamist indoctrination. As the latter can and does occur in any country, and is not limited to one type of cultural or educational background, such talk hinders rather than helps reform.

To return to my inherent objection to making national anthems compulsory however, this is probably a reflection of British attitudes to patriotism. Regardless of political views and whether or not people like singing “God save the Queen” (either the official or Sex Pistols version) in my experience most people in the UK adopt a mixture of amusement, incredulity, and pity when they hear Americans telling tales of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

This is not down to any scarcity of patriotism in Britain. Any international sporting event involving British teams or players will tell you that. A land where historians are television superstars is hardly suffering a shortage of patriotic pride, probably the opposite. It’s just that more people are likely to share it in welcoming displays of individuality and non-conformity, as was seen by the joyous national embrace of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics.

Bangladesh too is home to similar traditions. To take one example, Lalon’s lyrics and philosophy transcend mere borders and nationalism. They are part of a universal utopian ideal which sees mankind as brothers and sisters. Whatever people choose to believe, from the teachings of the Qur’an to the utopian lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the image of planet Earth as an infinitesimal blue dot in the vastness of space, is a humbling reminder of the limits of nationalism.

Should a madrasa not wish to make singing the national anthem compulsory, it ought to be free to follow its own path. After all, it’s a free country, isn’t it?